The holiday shopping season kicks off this week with Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. The new documentary What Would Jesus Buy? follows Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping gospel choir on a cross-country tour, preaching their message in such destinations as the Mall of America, Wal-Mart headquarters, Starbucks and Disneyland. We speak to Rev. Billy and the film’s producer Morgan Spurlock, who gained fame with his documentary Super Size Me. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As we kick off this Thanksgiving holiday, retailers are looking forward to Black Friday. That’s the busiest shopping day of the entire year. It’s in two days. Millions of Americans around the country are expected to flock to the malls, shopping centers, eager for discounts, in a buying frenzy that kicks off the Christmas shopping season.
But a group of people are trying to convince Americans that there’s more to Christmas than the next buy. They’re called the Church of Stop Shopping, and they’re led by anti-consumerism activist Reverend Billy. He’s the subject of a new feature-length documentary hitting the theaters this week called What Would Jesus Buy? The film follows Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir around the country as they preach their stop-shopping message in such destinations as the Mall of America, Wal-Mart headquarters, Starbucks and Disneyland.
This is an excerpt of What Would Jesus Buy?
NARRATOR: The once sleepy town of Bloomington, Minnesota, a monument for the ages has risen, with their own police force, an amusement park, a wedding chapel, and the first-ever college campus built inside of a mall. Over four miles of storefront with more than 42 million visitors per year. That’s more visits than to the Capitol, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon and Disneyland combined. Behold, the Mall of America.
REVEREND BILLY: We’re going to spread the good gospel through the Mall of America. You can walk away from the product! Drive the moneychangers out of the temple this year! We are all ending up inside these super malls! These products are taking over our lives! Stop shopping! Hallelujah! Change-a-lujah! Let’s change! We’re here in the heart of the Mall of America to urge you to join us and many other Americans in saving Christmas from the Shopocalypse!
SECURITY GUARD: You guys got to stop protesting, or you’re going to have to leave, OK? OK, well, you guys got to — you got to walk off property, OK? You’re not allowed to be on property.
REVEREND BILLY: We’re just everywhere. You never know when we’re going to show up.
SECURITY GUARD: That’s fine, but you can’t be here today.
REVEREND BILLY: You’ve got to stop shopping! Your consumption’s getting out of control! Hallelujah, that wasn’t nice. I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’m sorry.
SECURITY GUARD: No, that’s fine.
REVEREND BILLY: I get angry at police pretty easily. We’ll see each other again somewhere.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of What Would Jesus Buy?, the documentary that follows Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping around the country. It’s produced by Morgan Spurlock, who gained fame with his documentary Super Size Me. Reverend Billy joins us here in our firehouse studio, Morgan Spurlock in Los Angeles.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Morgan Spurlock, your decision to follow your neighbor, Reverend Billy, around?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: I think that it’s just such an important issue to talk about. You know, the Christmas season has become such this massive orgy of consumption, where it’s just buy, buy, buy, buy, buy. You know, we live in a time where this whole concept of buy more, pay less has just really, as Billy says, taken over our lives. And I think there’s no better time to get a message out there of, you know what? We should spend less, but give more during the holiday season.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Billy, when did you start doing this?
REVEREND BILLY: When did I start getting involved with this film?
AMY GOODMAN: No, getting — doing your crusade around the country. Are you banned from every Starbucks in the world?
REVEREND BILLY: Yes, we are very proud of that. It’s like winning the Oscar. Morgan might argue with that, but for us, in our value system, in our subculture... We got a letter from Starbucks saying that we were not invited in anymore into any of their emporiums of five-dollar latte-ventes ever again. Amen.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you do?
REVEREND BILLY: Well, we exorcise the cash registers. We drive the demon monoculture out of that cash register, Sister Amy. I mean, you’ve got a billionaire at the top of that company, and you’ve got impoverished, as Charlie would tell you, impoverished coffee families at the bottom. And we just asked that some of those dollars start blowing in the other direction. Amen.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another excerpt of What Would Jesus Buy? In this clip, you, Reverend Billy, enter a local store in the small town of Traer, Iowa.
REVEREND BILLY: I thought the whole store was empty.
STORE OWNER: Oh, no, I’m here. I didn’t want to be in your way.
REVEREND BILLY: Hi, I’m Bill.
STORE OWNER: Yeah.
REVEREND BILLY: How are you?
STORE OWNER: Good.
REVEREND BILLY: And what’s your name?
STORE OWNER: Mike.
REVEREND BILLY: Mike?
STORE OWNER: Mm-hmm.
REVEREND BILLY: This is my wife, Savitri, back here.
STORE OWNER: Hi.
REVEREND BILLY: And we just came up from Des Moines this morning, and we’re freezing, because I just don’t have — I need a good sweater.
STORE OWNER: OK.
REVEREND BILLY: Can I try it on?
STORE OWNER: Sure.
REVEREND BILLY: Then if I don’t like it, you have to fold it again.
STORE OWNER: That’s alright.
REVEREND BILLY: Alright.
STORE OWNER: That’s what it’s for.
REVEREND BILLY: Is this made in America, do you think? Or is that too much to ask?
STORE OWNER: Are you going to take it back off, or are you going to wear it?
REVEREND BILLY: No, I’ll never take it off.
SAVITRI D: Never take it off.
STORE OWNER: Made in USA. Can you believe that?
REVEREND BILLY: Amen! Hallelujah!
STORE OWNER: Yep.
SAVITRI D: Some gentleman next door said there were Wal-Marts twenty miles in either direction. Has that affected your store at all?
STORE OWNER: Oh, yeah, yeah. Wal-Mart is killing small-town America. Seriously, it is. Saturday nights, you know, everybody came to town, and we’d be busy, be here and be busy until 11:00, 12:00 at night. We’ve got two sons, and I have not encouraged either one of them to come back to the store. I mean, there’s no future in it. And that’s sad.
SAVITRI D: It is sad.
STORE OWNER: I mean, when you think of a business that’s been in a community for over 125 years, and it’s just — it’ll be gone. You know, it all goes back to the mindset of the people, and it goes back the Wal-Mart mentality of "We’ve to buy this just as cheap as we can buy it. You know, we don’t care where it’s made, and we don’t care if they’re not paying the employees anything. You know, as long as I bought that pair of socks for fifty cents instead of $2, I’m happy."
REVEREND BILLY: Lots of folks think it’s inevitable that we’re going to disappear into the big stores.
SAVITRI D: We don’t have to.
REVEREND BILLY: We don’t have to feel that way.
STORE OWNER: I hope not.
REVEREND BILLY: So let’s talk to each other, put our money back into our own community.
CONSUMER: As long as I get a good deal, it doesn’t matter where it’s made in. It’s pretty much the price I can get. Everybody just looks for the price.
CONSUMER: It doesn’t really matter to me where things are made, because I just get them. I don’t really wonder where they’re made, because, I mean, that takes just too much mindboggling for me.
CONSUMER: They go to other countries to make cheaper stuff, and then we get jobs at K-Marts, Wal-Marts and, you know, Targets. And we get paid less, because, of course, you know, cashiers don’t make a lot of money, and the stockers don’t make a lot of money. And it’s an evil cycle. But, you know, what are we going to do? What are we going to do? The truth. I mean, there’s nothing we can do.
CONSUMER: Like, I can’t, like, boycott everything and say I’m not going to buy anything. So I really don’t know what to tell you, I’m sorry.
ANDREW YOUNG: Well, people have a choice. Are they going to choose low prices or high wages? And that’s not a choice that, you know, I can make for them. Jesus said feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. There are more people being fed by Wal-Mart than any government in the world. Globalization doesn’t mean that America is losing. It means that America is shifting its vocations. It means maybe that the workers are not making as much in salary, but — and they’re losing insurance and they’re losing retirement benefits, which always says that nothing is guaranteed anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: And that was the former mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, also former ambassador to the United Nations for the United States, was working for Wal-Mart when he did this interview. Morgan Spurlock, your response?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, his answer sums everything up. You know, things aren’t guaranteed anymore, and that’s a shame, especially when you have a giant corporation, such as a Wal-Mart, that does employ so many people, and they don’t have health insurance, and they aren’t taking care of their employees, you know, and they’re importing goods from overseas that have questionable reliability. You know, there are so many product recalls that are happening now. I think there’s no better time than right now to start asking ourselves, where do our products come from? Why am I buying this? Is there a better way to shop and live?
You know, I’m in full agreement with a lot of people who say there are some people that need to shop there, that make a choice because they have to, based on their income. But most of us choose to shop at places like this out of convenience more than anything else. And I think we have to take that step back from just rushing in to make a purchase somewhere just because it’s cheap and easy and quick, and saying, "What does this purchase really mean? Who is it affecting? You know, how is it affecting my life, my community, the world at large? Who made this product?" And we don’t do that enough.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Billy, you’re calling on people not to shop on Friday, what’s supposed to be the biggest shopping day of the year.
REVEREND BILLY: We call it Buy Nothing Day. We’ll be out at Macy’s front door. It’s the high holy moment of our theological calendar, Sister Amy. We’ll be there with the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir and with scores of striking elves that have come forward to volunteer. They think that Santa is abusive. And I think he is, too. Christmas, after hundreds of billions of dollars and decades of corporate imagery, has become this nostalgic, this passive, certainly not political in any way, but that moment in late December when daylight gets longer and the darkness less. That’s a seed of change. That’s the promise of spring. And all religions and all kinds of people regard it as an important and exciting moment. This year, especially, with the world at war, with the climate crisis, our neighborhoods and families in trouble, this year, it really needs to be a different kind of Christmas.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to our break, which is a medley from What Would Jesus Buy? Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is an excerpt of What Would Jesus Buy? here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. [...] We go to our final excerpt, where the Church of Stop Shopping cross-country tour ends on Christmas Day in Disneyland.
DISNEYLAND: Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, in just ten minutes, Disneyland will present a Christmas fantasy parade. It’s a magical place where dreams come true.
CHARACTER VOICE: Hello, everyone. Yoo-hoo! Mickey needs to know you’re rooting for him. Go, Mickey, go!
CROWD: Go, Mickey, go! Go, Mickey, go! Go, Mickey, go!
REVEREND BILLY: Go, Mickey, go! Go, Mickey, go! Go, Mickey, go!
This is amazing! Christmas time! Christmas time in Disneyland! We got what Santa gave us, and it was what we wanted! We’re so lucky! Christmas time on Main Street in Disneyland! But wait a minute. This amazing Main Street, it’s so prosperous! It’s so beautiful! It’s so healthy! The main streets across America, they’re not this prosperous! They’re not this amazing! They’re empty! They’re shuttered! They’re outsourced! Everything here, Main Street, USA, it’s made in China!
SECURITY GUARD: Sir.
REVEREND BILLY: Something’s wrong! Let’s take our magic — let’s take our magic back to America! Let’s go shop at home!
SECURITY GUARD: Sir!
REVEREND BILLY: We can change!
SECURITY GUARD: Sir, you need to relax.
REVEREND BILLY: Let’s slow down our consumption! Amen!
SECURITY GUARD: Sir, you need to stop.
REVEREND BILLY: Hallelujah! Stop shopping here! We have the magic!
SECURITY GUARD: We need you to stop!
REVEREND BILLY: The corporations stole Christmas! We can take it back!
SECURITY GUARD: If you don’t stop, you will be arrested.
REVEREND BILLY: Let’s give a real gift!
SECURITY GUARD: You’re going to jail tonight.
REVEREND BILLY: Stop shopping! Stop shopping here!
SECURITY GUARD: You’re going to jail.
REVEREND BILLY: Merry Christmas! Stop! Stop! Leave Disneyland! Stop!
SECURITY GUARD: Sir, can you come with us, please?
SECURITY GUARD: They basically have control of this place. It’s not like the United States on public land where you’re free to sing.
SECURITY GUARD: Your preacher back there, he’s going to go to jail. Everybody here will go to jail, if you don’t stop what you’re doing.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of What Would Jesus Buy? Reverend Billy, you were arrested at Disneyland on Christmas Day?
REVEREND BILLY: Yes, and the place was packed with people. The holy day was just jammed with folks. It used to be closed on Christmas. Christmas used to be something that we the citizens, we found our own way to celebrate this change, this coming spring, this rising light. But, of course, Wal-Mart now is open all through Thanksgiving. They’re taking over the time that we should be thinking about what life is.
AMY GOODMAN: Morgan Spurlock, repeat what that guard said. It was quiet, and actually, on the film, you had the words written on the bottom so people could hear.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Yeah, he says — he basically says, "This isn’t America, where you can just do whatever you want, like sing." And I think that Billy, who’s been an incredible proponent of the First Amendment, you know, he was recently — charges against him in New York were dropped as he was reciting the First Amendment out on the streets of New York City. You know, I think that it’s challenging this idea of what you can say and what you can do and this idea of, quote-unquote, "public space" that has been corporatized. You know, we’re told that malls and these types of retail outlets are public space where people can gather, but at the same time they tell you you don’t have the rights as an American citizen. And I think, you know, we’re really trying to get this word out there in a multitude of ways, and this film does a great job of, I think, challenging the viewer, of making us think, of making us laugh. The one thing I love about Reverend Billy, that I loved from the beginning, is that he, much like myself, believes that if you can make people laugh, you can make them listen. And I think there’s a very important message in this movie about what’s really important during the holidays, and what should we be thinking about, and what really matters.
AMY GOODMAN: Morgan Spurlock, you, well, almost literally exploded on the scene with your film Super Size Me, which documented your only eating McDonald’s for thirty days. Do you think things have changed since then? And what was the reaction after that?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Well, I think that for me — and this is the same way I would gauge the success of this movie — while you did see a reaction from corporate America and from many of the fast food chains and retail outlets, the greater change for me came from the consumers, from the normal people, the parents who would come up to me that told me they started cooking at home, the school boards that told me they changed their entire school lunch program after they saw the film, students who — or phys ed instructors who said they pushed, you know, to get more physical education in schools. I mean, these were the — those were real triumphs for me. And I think that if you can start to affect one person at a time, which that movie did, and this movie hopefully will do the same thing, then I think you can really have a success. But at the end of the day, you know, especially when it comes to something as massive as shopping, it is up to you and I. You know, the voting booth of the twenty-first century isn’t where we go pull the handle, it’s where we go spend our dollar. You know, that’s where the real power is in America.
AMY GOODMAN: And one of the moving moments in the film, Reverend Billy, were the kids, the kids finding out where they could find out about where the gifts they were buying, the clothes they were wearing, was made. And they were talking about learning about kids making their clothes.
REVEREND BILLY: It’s a wonderful moment in the movie that our director Rob VanAlkemade caught just following these three young women, teenagers, fourteen-, fifteen-year-olds, as they explore where Abercrombie & Fitch, the supply of their textiles comes from. And they go to the internet, they go to responsibleshopper.org, they do an entire step-by-step investigation. And then they become just amazed at the conditions under which these children are making the clothing that’s on their back.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you been to the movie, Reverend Billy?
REVEREND BILLY: Have I been to the movie?
AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of response have you gotten since?
REVEREND BILLY: Yes, it just opened this last weekend in New York, and it opens in the next couple days in Los Angeles and San Fransisco.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you’re such a known figure in New York. Has the response to you changed?
REVEREND BILLY: Well, people still call across the street, "Reverend, keep it up! Are you out of jail? How are things?" People have a protective kind of attitude towards me, which I appreciate. I’m very happy about the film, this extraordinary privilege that we have, that our neighbor in the East Village walked over, found us in a community garden preaching, and said, "I want my next movie to be about your work."
AMY GOODMAN: Are there warnings that stores have about you and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir making your way in, wherever it might be?
REVEREND BILLY: We’d like to see some of the mug shots that are back in the bowels of Wal-Mart and Starbucks and Disney. We haven’t seen them yet. But a couple of the singers in the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir first encountered us as baristas in Starbucks. So, we hope to infiltrate.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: I think there is a
AMY GOODMAN: Morgan.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: I think there is a big red circle with like a line through it of Billy’s face on it on most retail outlets: No Billy allowed.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Morgan Spurlock produced What Would Jesus Buy?, the director of the 2004 Oscar-nominated Super Size Me. And Reverend Billy himself, the star, on stage and screen and the streets of New York. What Would Jesus Buy? is the film. Thanks for joining us.
REVEREND BILLY: Thank you, Sister Amy.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Thank you.